Moon River Stone to Westminster
On the floor of the Star Inn Jim was fighting to push his entire body inside a bag of pork scratchings. I could have had a dog that ate its dinner, a dog that barked and wagged its tail, a normal dog, a dog with fur. But the book said a whippet was the easiest dog and I had trouble enough already.
Whippets are hounds-miners' dogs, racers, rabbiters. They are very thin. On top they are velvet and underneath they are bald. They are warm and smell of buttered toast. They love every living creature to a rapture unless you are small and furry and trying to get the hell out of here. They like running the towpaths and thieving off fishermen; but fire up the engine, cast off the ropes, and it's the eyes, the betrayed eyes. So the narrowboat Phyllis May has a dog that hates boating.
We'll call him Gonzales, I had said, because he's fast, or Leroy because he's golden brown, or we'll have a dog called Bony Moronie. Good thinking, said Monica, and named him Jim. He's your dog, she said-you look after him. I read Your Dog Is Watching You, and Your Dog Will Get You in the End, and How to Stop Your Dog Behaving Like a Bloody Animal. Jim and I went to school on many dark evenings, but neither of us learned very much.
The door from the canal opened and it was Clive. Like most inland boaters, Clive looks like a pregnant bear. Got you, he shouted-greedy greedy, early drinkies, surprise surprise, make mine a pint. He sat down and slapped his pipe and his Breton sailor's hat on the table. Jim was ecstatic. Jim sees Clive and Beryl as part of our pack, who sometimes make their escape owing to my lack of leadership and poor attention to detail. But through his tracking skills we get them back, and How about some scratchings?
Are you nervous? asked Clive, pulling Jim out of his trouser pocket. Yes, I said. I'm worried about getting away from Stone. I might crash or fall in. People will be watching.
Clive has a Dudley accent, and a deep voice, as if he is saying something important. Beryl and I should never have encouraged you, he said. You are old, you've only got one eye, you are a coward and you can't jump. You're no good at anything useful. Monica ran your business while you wandered around being nasty to your customers.
By the end of the summer I'll be fine, I said. I can handle the fear-running a market research agency scared me stiff too. We had another pint, to handle the fear.
TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS AGO A bunch of engineers met in a public house by a canal. They decided the size of the locks on the English canal system and then they had another round and started talking about girls. In the morning the secretary could not remember what had been decided, or indeed where he was, so to be on the safe side he chose the narrowest gauge mentioned in his notes, which was seven feet. That is how the English narrow lock was born, and the English narrowboat-the cigarette, the pencil, the eel, the strangest craft ever to slither down a waterway.
The five windows of the Phyllis May lit the towpath for the length of a cricket pitch. With her flat roof, fairground lettering, brasses and flowers, a traditional narrowboat has a louche charm, though sixty feet by seven is a preposterous shape. Clive and I stepped into the front deck and down to the narrow saloon. Panelling, armchairs, lamps and pictures-second class on the Orient Express. You live in comfort, and you live sideways.
Monica was curled on the sofa. Beryl folded her hands in her lap, in a cornflower stare. Clive stood in the middle of the saloon. We have news, he said-we are forsaking earthly things. We are selling our house and our possessions, giving what is left to the poor, and having a narrowboat built, on which we will live out our days. Ah the poor earthbound rabble, tramping their warren streets-for me the silver highway, the gypsy life: my companion the heron, lone sentinel of the waterways, my constituency the ducks, my gardens the broad valleys, my drawing room the public bar of the inn called Navigation. I've been trying to persuade the bugger for years, said Beryl.
But first we are going up the Bristol Channel with you on the Phyllis May, said Clive. But I am not going up the Bristol Channel on the Phyllis May, I protested. The Phyllis May is a canal boat. There are fifty-foot tides and the Severn Bore. We will finish up dashed through the window of Woolworths in Bewdley. I don't think there is a Woolworths in Bewdley, said Clive, but if there is I can pick up a CD of Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders. And next year when you go to France we will all put out to sea together, and sail across the Channel side by side.
I could feel my palpitations coming on. Clive, I said, narrowboats don't sail across the Channel. I was brought up by the sea. I remember the empty seats in school when boys drowned themselves. I might sail the Phyllis May to France if there were thirty Tommies to take back and it would tip the balance in the struggle for Europe. Otherwise it's the lorry, and a crane into Calais.
Let's have a drop more of that Banks's, said Clive-you know I have blue water experience. You mean we went out once from Padstow, said Beryl, in a cruiser, and nearly drowned. That was a trick of the tide, said Clive. But they warned you, said Beryl, they begged you, they called it the Maelstrom and you went straight into it. But we got back in, said Clive. Yes, said Beryl, we got back in.
Is this Old Speckled Hen a strong one? asked Clive-it tastes so smooth. The thing is you rope them up together side by side, so if one breaks a belt on the engine the other tows it out of the way of the tankers and car ferries. Piece of piss really. Clive, I said, you come from Dudley, you have been to sea once and you nearly didn't come back, and now you want to put at hazard the December years I could spend in the Star or watching Kylie Minogue on the box.
But narrowboats are like those toys, said Clive. The bottom is full of bricks so they roll back. What about that chap, I said, who built a narrowboat in Liverpool and set out across the Irish Sea? How did he do? asked Clive. No one ever found out, I said. Must have run into a maelstrom, said Clive. Is that single malt as good as you say it is? He sat back and smiled. Jim looked at him with eyes full of love. He had found a leader at last.
When I woke up the next morning, and I wished I had not woken up the next morning, I realized that I had agreed to sail an inland boat across the English Channel, roped up to a madman.
A CANAL LOCK IS A SIMPLE IDEA. YOU CLOSE the gate behind you and empty the water out at the other end and you sink down, and then you open the gates in front of you and sail away. Going up you fill the lock instead of emptying it. In real life locks are dark and slimy and foaming. They flood you and hang you by the stern. Often they don't work. But today I wound up the paddles in the lock gate with my new aluminium key without spraining my wrist, and when the lock was empty heaved on the beams and opened the gates without shouting for help. The Phyllis May mumbled out of the Star lock into the sunshine, Jim riding shotgun on the roof.
Friends and family waved. Pints were brandished in the sunshine and granddaughters wept. The swans that nest below the Star dipped their beaks and raised them in perfect time. Past the tower of St. Michael's, to drinking, and dancing, and waving, and tears, and coarse encouraging shouts. A Cunarder leaving New York, country style.
Under Aston lock the Trent valley falls away in spires and farms. It's like Ulysses, I said, whom I so closely resemble.
Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world . . .
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Your dog has jumped ship, said Monica, and is probably in Rugeley. And there is a corpse under the prop, so you'll have to go down the weed-hatch again.
WHEN MONICA AND I BOUGHT THE PHYLLIS May she was worn out, and we had her refurbished. We had not had a boat before and sometimes we would go down to the cut and lick her all over. We loved the gangling shape and the long windows, we loved the curve of the bow and the front deck where you could sit, and the teak and oak saloon running on and on into the galley. We loved the iron stove, the shower that worked, the little bedroom cabin, the warm engine-room. We held the grab-rail along the roof and walked the gunwale, trying not to fall in. I would stand on the back counter, leaning on the tiller, musing upon our boatyard manager's sins and on the follies of the yard before him.
But one day we found a boatyard we could trust and soon we sailed away, in shining grey and white and crimson, with primroses on the roof and a brass tunnel light at the bow, and our names on the engine-room in fairground lettering a foot high, and ran into the first bridge.
The Phyllis May is not right yet-no narrowboat is right yet. Lumps of metal drop into her bilges, or she leaks from the rear. Then I strip naked, grease myself all over, and hang upside down among the ironmongery, grunting and cursing. It is dark, it is wet, I freeze and I burn and I get stuck and we call out the boatyard anyway. I have gone all sweaty in my hair so let's talk about something else.
Jim lets me use his kennel as my office. I put my laptop on it and sit on the coal-box with my feet on Jim. The coal-box has Phyllis May painted on the front side and Kiss Me Again on the backside. Jim lies quietly under my feet, which is more than my secretary ever did, and sometimes he licks me behind the knees, and in forty years in business there was no chance of that. In pubs he is the cause of much wise country talk about lamping for rabbits, and is seen as the next best thing to a lurcher. The trouble is he camps everything up.
In Stone I fastened him outside the supermarket. When I returned he was in the arms of an old man in a cloth cap. Both were crying softly. I crept away. I came back and a crowd had gathered. In the middle lay Jim, pretending to be dead. Was this your dog? asked a lady.
On the boat I opened a bag of pork scratchings. Jim manifested himself at my knee. He sat down-Can I have a scratching? Then he lay down-Please can I have a scratching? Then he rolled on his back and waved his legs in the air-Please please can I have a scratching? Then he sat up and looked straight at me-What do you want me to do-sing 'Moon Fucking River'?
A cathedral of oaks to Fradley, and we moored at the end of the nave.
CALL ME MOZZA, SAID OUR NEW FRIEND IN THE cowboy boots, settling into my chair. Some people call me Mad Mozza, he added proudly. He was a sturdy young chap, maybe forty, with sandy hair and blue staring eyes. Cheers Mozza, I said, I'm Terry and this is Monica and you've met Jim. We're really grateful Mozza, said Monica-Terry loves that dog.
He stole Captain's bone, said Mozza, and ran away-Captain didn't stand a chance. Jim looked out of his kennel, his eyes wide-He begged me Your Honour, Steal my bone; he went down on his hands and knees. He was on the road, said Mozza, but he came to me. They come to me because I have The Power. Would you like a cup of tea? asked Monica. Er yes, said Mozza. I poured him half a tumbler of rum.
I know this boat, said Mozza-Starbuck. Billy Ishmael had her built-lived on her for ten years. Knows his boats, Billy. Very artistic. Carried him home twice from the Plum Pudding in Armitage. Goodness, said Monica-but we are really pleased with her shape, Mozza: the low line, the big windows, and we've kept the grey. The lettering on the engine-room is not bad, said Mozza-why Phyllis May? My mother, I said, rest her soul-she still comes back. They come back all right, agreed Mozza. We had another rum, to stop them coming back.
We just retired, I said, and we bought a little house and we bought the boat and we bought Jim. We keep crashing into things and running out of fuel and falling in and people shout at us and stick notes on the door. Maybe we started too late. It's a way of life, agreed Mozza. You've got to be born to it. To tell you the truth, at your age you would probably be better off in a home-you must be a menace to the navigations. You're right Mozza, I said, but you can't get the beer.
Click click, said Mozza. Pardon? I said. Click click, said Mozza, let the water in click by click. Oh yes, I said, that poor chap last summer, two locks behind us. The lock filled too fast, knocked overboard by the tiller, engine in reverse, cut to pieces. Wife, two kids. Click click, said Mozza. What's the hurry?
We want to go south to see if we can handle the big rivers, explained Monica. This year we want to go down to London and past the Houses of Parliament and up the Thames and along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Bristol. Next summer we want to go to Paris, and the summer after to Carcassonne. Never heard of it, said Mozza. It's in France, I said, right down the other end. It's sort of an adventure before it's too late. They say at our age you are at the end of vigour.
Excerpted from Narrow Dog to Carcassonne by Terry Darlington. Copyright © 2008 by Terry Darlington. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.